Love Objects: On the Poetry and Prose of Aaron Kunin

October 23, 2021   •   By Griffin Shoglow-Rubenstein

“LOVE, WHAT DO I think / to say. I cannot say it,” writes Robert Creeley in the title poem of For Love (1962), far and away one of the most influential books of American poetry to emerge during the postwar era. In a characteristic move, Creeley develops the poem around what the poem cannot say; gestures of refusal and uncertainty abound, with the poet seized by something that “despairs of its own / statement, wants to / turn away, endlessly / to turn away.” The poet is trying to write a love poem for his wife, but the attempt produces a general skepticism about his own authenticity, a worry that he has not “earned” the right to demonstrate his love in literature rather than in life. This in turn leads to the worry that the idea of “earning” love might itself be too transactional, mechanical.

Can I eat
what you give me. I
have not earned it. Must
I think of everything

as earned.

Creeley’s neurotic self-qualifications — can I eat it? have I earned it? must I think of everything as earned? — replay at a different level the stumbling and stuttering one finds in his idiom at large. Harsh line breaks and a clipped, condensed internal syntax both consolidate and suspend whatever Creeley is saying, rendering his pronouncements simultaneously vivid and vague, realistic and impressionistic. Skepticism about the ethics of love poetry has its immediate analogue and partner in skepticism about the expressive potential of language itself; unlike most of his literary forebears, Creeley sees the poetic medium itself as an appropriate object of doubt, a cause for concern, for second thoughts. Hence the movement with which the poem (and the encompassing book) concludes, dissolving the poetic situation into a much broader social web, a community that exceeds the bounds of the poem proper: “Into the company of love / it all returns.”

If the values crystallized by Creeley form the long-range backdrop for much 21st-century American poetry, then the work of Aaron Kunin calls us back to his innovations in unusually direct ways. Kunin’s interests in everyday language, in a certain minimalism or material rigor of expression, and in the delusion-rich vagaries of personal experience all echo Creeley (and Gertrude Stein and William Carlos Williams before Creeley). But the connections go deeper, especially with respect to “For Love” and the complex sequence of issues and possibilities to which that poem gave voice. Kunin, an American poet, novelist, critic, and scholar, published his two most recent books in 2019, adding to a previous five from the last decade and a half. Drawing them from my shelves and flipping through the stack, I again and again had the sense that at least one was missing; the variety of his work can generate the disconcerting feeling that his books belong to different oeuvres, are somehow more numerous than what he has in fact produced. This suspicion is hardly assuaged by Kunin’s habit of using all English pronouns, irrespective of number, gender, or person, to refer to himself in his work, a choice that sounds narcissistic or careless but in practice comes off as generous and expansive, as mobilizing the porousness, the capaciousness of personhood.

Related themes — of the fragile, the mutable, the mercurial — and their attendant forms circulate throughout his writing. One book translates Maurice Maeterlinck’s play Pelléas et Mélisande into lyric poems built from an artificially restricted vocabulary of Kunin’s 200 most commonly used words. Another translates Paradise Lost into a secular (and lyric) context in which a character feels shame at disobeying a second character even though the first character knows that the second character isn’t a god. Paratexts figure so prominently that they cease to be paratexts at all: the preface to Folding Ruler Star (2005) delivers crucial, if gnomic, clues to the book’s basic concerns; The Sore Throat & Other Poems (2010) ends with a dossier of “knowledge blobs,” a term that William James invented to describe the reciprocal clinginess of memories involving the same subject. The blobs, which are in prose, document in elliptical fashion the conversations and events through which Kunin devised the formal procedures of the preceding poems. They thus form a second-order narrative enclosure, indeed a sort of meta-blob; as with even his most conventional paratexts (“Note on Method,” “Note on Punctuation,” etc.), the boundaries between paratext and text, between artist and art object, blur.

These interests and practices have their proximate origins in the long line of poetic experimentalism running from Stein and Raymond Roussel through Oulipo and Language writing, with significant detours and divagations along the way. But it’s striking how infrequently Kunin invokes artists of this persuasion. Aside from the introduction he wrote for Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop’s recent prose collection and passing references to Tristan Tzara and Raúl Ruiz in one of his latest books, Kunin’s intertextual citations skew overwhelmingly toward writers whose direct connection to the avant-garde is, on the face of it, tenuous or nonexistent: Shakespeare, John Donne, Milton, Molière, Aphra Behn, Samuel Richardson, Jane Austen, George Meredith, Henry James. It’s as though his academic commitments and his creative work were bound precisely by being pushed as far apart from each other as possible, an extended exploration of the tenacity with which avant-garde modes will persist within traditional concerns and vice versa.

This is to say that Kunin reprises an important Creelian paradox. On the one hand, Creeley attracted the Language poets precisely for his ability to generate medium-specific experiences. The aim was no longer merely to imitate or reproduce reality but also to alter it; the shift from Objectivism and Imagism to the early strains of postmodernism in Creeley is the shift from locating the object or image within the external world to locating it within language itself. Hence the spareness, the continual paring down and hewing away. “Words will not say anything more than they do, and my various purposes will not understand them more than what they say,” he wrote in a brief prose preface to Words, his 1967 book. On the other hand, Creeley also hung on to a more traditional sense of poetry’s mattering for its ability to harden, heighten, render tangible the real — and thus preserve the real, as it is or was. He explained in another brief prose preface, this time to the first volume of his Collected Poems:

[W]hen it came time to think specifically of this collection and of what might be decorously omitted, I decided to stick with my initial judgments, book by tender book, because these were the occasions most definitive of what the poems might mean, either to me or to anyone else. To define their value in hindsight would be to miss the factual life they had either made manifest or engendered.

For Creeley, as for Kunin, emphasizing the material properties of language results in a counterintuitive dual commitment. Lines, phrases, words, phonemes, rhythms, etc. all become indices of the real, traces of a “factual life […] made manifest.” But they also open up the opportunity for departing from the real, for carving out spaces where the rules and the possibilities diverge from those of everyday life, conventionally construed. The jolt, the deep shudder, of Creeley’s line breaks (“for / christ’s sake, look / out where yr going”) owes as much to the medium as it does to the real-world moods his poems subtend.

Clear genealogical affinities notwithstanding, Kunin and Creeley nevertheless hover on opposite sides of the realism-materialism divide — at least in terms of how that divide played out in postwar American poetics. If Creeley’s writing always partakes of, and sometimes veers quite heavily into, the sensuous as opposed to the straightforwardly semantic, his poems still remain attached to thoughts and moods that an actual person could plausibly have experienced outside the realm of art. Kunin, by contrast, is actively interested in the artificial, in the way that adopted aesthetic constraints — syllabic meter, translation from another text, use of a restricted vocabulary — transform a poem’s articulations of personhood beyond the immediate substance of lived experience. What still appear in Creeley as hesitations, digressions, and associative leaps get intensified, in Kunin, into outright ventriloquism and collage. An early poem from Folding Ruler Star, “Hidden School Entrance,” runs in full:

takes us back to the
scene remembered by
the phrase (five years have

passed) because they had
not been per-fec-ted
(five syllables with

the length of five long
winters) and again
(this is not a bill

do not pay this) a
truck pulls up to the
library to fill

the Pepsi machines
circles the building
and enters at the

(and earth exalted
on its center hung)
vulnerable back

The poem revolves around a few different images of maturation or subject-formation. “Five syllables with // the length of five long / winters” is a détournement of Wordsworth (the opening of “Tintern Abbey”); “and earth exalted / on its center hung” modifies a line from the cosmogony scene in Milton’s Paradise Lost (Book VII). In context, “Hidden School Entrance” extends a bathetic vision of education as riddled with pointless obligations and self-contradictory banalities. The speaker needs the reminder that not everything is a bill, not everything a mere debt requiring payment; and the primary act of creation taking place in his library seems to be the replenishment of the school’s Pepsi supply. If Wordsworth’s text affirms the formative influence of the River Wye on the poet, and Milton’s text describes the founding of a stable universe in which “Earth self ballanc’t on her Center hung,” Kunin’s depicts the moment of subject-construction as profoundly compromised, indeed traumatic and incomplete (not yet “per-fec-ted”). It does so largely through its form, with the intrusions of parentheticals and the strictures of its pentasyllabic meter reinforcing a mood of schoolboyish subjection to outside forces, to the institutional demands of rules and rule-following. Just as trauma involves the overwhelming of subjectivity by external circumstance, so does Kunin’s poem stage the painful dispersal of subjectivity into the educative materials that were supposed to help shape it (literature, vending machines, cosmogony).

This overriding of the voice by exogenous systems points us to a crucial feature of the “middle path” Kunin charts between avant-garde and traditional approaches to the lyric. Artificial constraints are an essential tool for many experimental writers; but Kunin also thematizes such situations of constraint, deploying them contentually and not just formally. The restricted voice or restricted subject becomes itself the focus of his texts, as in Folding Ruler Star’s inquiry into shame or the “Essay on Tickling” in Cold Genius (2014). Some of the questions his poems probe — put in general terms — would be what these situations of impingement and limitation look like; what they feel like; how they affect a person’s self-productions in language, culture, and society; and what if anything we can learn about desire, subjectivity, community, and so on from examining images of our heteronomy. The poems, that is, are to a great extent about their own conditions of limitation, partialness, constraint. As Kunin puts it in The Sore Throat  (the pronouns here are meant to be vague; more on that below):

That’s for sure. You are like us:
What you have to say, we know.
We say it always. As you begin to say
It, there it is. We say it now.

It is in the throat now
And we are talking about it
As always. We know all that we know
By, of, for, within, and out of it.

For talking habits are habits
Of the mind, as you know.
The word, as it were, is our god:
We cannot change it, we have no choice.

The robotic, under-inflected, recycled quality of Kunin’s speech patterns here is key, part and parcel of his attempt to tap into collective modes of thinking and behaving. Also essential is the vagueness of his pronouns and statements; especially in the first two stanzas, they do not so much pick out specific referents as yield up an experience of referring in general, of circling continually around the questions of what you have to say and what you know, of ping-ponging within the well-worn walls of your talking habits. The thing in the throat is both the thing you are always saying and the thing you never quite manage to say.

In depicting the “sore throat” in this way — as a Janus-faced situation of reticence and loquacity, of limitation and enablement, of the stuck and the desiring — Kunin brings us back into the Creelian network of ambivalence and affection with which we began. “For Love” is framed not just by the need to articulate something that “despairs of its own / statement” but also by the curious parallelism of its title and its dedication: “for Bobbie,” referring to Creeley’s wife. The title itself — with a “for” of its own — already employs the logic of a dedication; and so the two phrases jostle and jockey with each other, competing for a place that would seem to have room only for one. Whom, or what, is the poem for?

The short, simple answer is that the kind of encounter Creeley is staging does not permit the bracketing of either term, of either the general concept of love or the particular person who makes the concept concrete for him. As I suggested earlier, the poem concludes with an anti-poetic, anti-literary, even anti-representational gesture, as though returning into “the company of love” were incompatible with the more local, particular movements of poems themselves. (I’m not sure what it would mean to think the company of love could exist inside poems.) But to say that “it all returns” into the company of love is also to say that such a moment of poetic excess is essential not just to the poem’s conclusion but also to its origins. Creeley is foregrounding, giving pride of place to, the entities (love, Bobbie) who are both the poem’s founding causes and raisons d’être but also, for complicated reasons, precisely the entities excluded from the poem’s representational logic.

This is to say, among other things, that insofar as the poem has its raison d’être outside of the poem proper, it exists in a state of heteronomy. It owes its existence to something (or someone) else.

And it turns out that Kunin, in a remarkable moment, likewise makes room for this thought. The opening of Cold Genius, his poetry volume from 2014, moves all copyright material and traceable acknowledgments to the back of the book, replacing them in the front with a staggered series of paratexts. The first, on the inner flap, is an unattributed quotation from Henry Purcell’s opera King Arthur, or The British Worthy (libretto by John Dryden); the second is an unattributed quotation from a letter of William Empson’s discussing the poet George Herbert; and the third consists of a dedication coupled with a small black-and-white print of someone peering at us over her shoulder.

(1) What power art thou who from below
      Hast made me rise unwillingly and slow
      From beds of everlasting snow?

(2) But surely there is no such poem?

(3) This book is for MD.

The details here would be well worth unpacking; the Empson quote, for instance, comes from an anecdote he tells in which an emperor rejects a poem as unsuccessful because he can think of no classical precedent it seeks to imitate. (Recycling speech patterns indeed!) But most essential is the overall movement across the three paratexts, the way they take up the same question and offer progressively finer-tuned responses. The first wonders at the sort of force that could wrest one from perpetual slumber against one’s will; the second querulously proposes that, whatever the force might be, surely it could not be a poem; and the third sidesteps the previous questions by indicating directly whom the book is for, indicating, we could say, who ultimately stands as the book’s justifying presence. The exact contours and contents of the paratexts remain suspended, with the distance between them — they appear on separate pages, held apart by the half title and then by the title page — keeping ambiguous just how interconnected we should take them to be. But such ambiguity is also appropriate to their individual rhetorical situations: the awe and fear of the first, the curiosity and disbelief of the second, the blunt immediacy of the third. None of these conditions promises an easy resolution or explanation.

And yet — they communicate with each other, inflecting without effacing each other. All three moments get preserved, and so we rotate through a consideration of the kinds of subjects and objects (people and poems) who can compel literature into being. For Kunin and for Creeley, that compulsion is a part of the poem, not a distant cause drifting outside it.

¤

The title of Cold Genius is also the stage name of the spirit, the “genius of the clime,” whose lines in Purcell’s opera become Kunin’s first epigraph. Crucially, the spirit is agential, person-like, but also rises from and speaks on behalf of the wintered earth. Both supernatural and natural, both human and seemingly totemic, the cold genius is capable of acting yet “unwilling” to do so; it is bidden, “made” to “rise.” A relationship of cool remove obtains between the cold genius and Cupid, who has summoned him in order to demonstrate the power of love to thaw “countries cak’d with ice.”

Unlike Kafka, who called literature “the axe that breaks the frozen sea inside of us,” Kunin is interested in the ice. He wants to talk about what happens when we stay frozen, or, in another version of the same idea, when we would prefer being summoned over doing the summoning. Addressing his abiding concerns with autonomy and heteronomy for the first time in discursive prose, his two most recent books are extended investigations of spaces where the line between subjecthood and objecthood gets vigorously and frequently trampled. One of these spaces is art; another is power. A third is love.

In Love Three: A Study of a Poem by George Herbert, Kunin takes up one of the sliest, subtlest, most devilish poems ever produced in the English language. The 17th-century Metaphysical poet George Herbert — yes, the same George Herbert discussed by Empson in the passage Kunin takes as an epigraph for Cold Genius — wrote three poems about a personified figure he calls “Love.” The last of these poems is strange. If Love is simply the Christian God, then “Love (III)” seems oddly sexual; it also seems secular, profane. In the first two poems, Love does any number of things a god might do: he is the “author of this great frame,” he “wrought our deliverance from th’ infernal pit,” etc. The third poem takes things a step further.

Here’s how Kunin opens the book:

Try to think of it as a third kind of love. The first kind is nice. The second kind is nasty. Another kind is nice because it’s nasty. Love three.                       

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
                                    Guiltie of dust and sinne.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
                                    From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                                    If I lack’d any thing.

A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
                                    Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,
                                    I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
                                    Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
                                    Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
                                    My deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:
                                    So I did sit and eat.

Later, Kunin will limn the various ways that the poem rejects more conventional approaches to its subject. Some critics argue, for instance, that the poem is organized by a latent pun: the idea of a “host” brings together the “host” of hospitality with the “host” of sacramental bread, the literal embodiment of Christ one consumes in the Eucharist. But the word “host” never appears in the poem.

I don’t think it’s true that an unspoken pun is the basis for the poem.

Herbert was thinking about hospitality. He considered using the word “host,” noted the pun, thought it was a cheap trick, made a face, and did his best to keep it out of the poem.

He didn’t use the word because he didn’t want the pun.

The reason Herbert steered clear of the word “host” is the same reason Herbert has Love offer meat, not bread:

Because he wanted to avoid the confusing suggestion of transubstantiation.

Because “Love” (3) is not about Communion.

Although, yes, it’s about eating the body of God.

The poem is about meat. So is Kunin’s book.

Instead of relying on straightforward exegesis, Kunin passes the poem through a variety of performative filters. One of these is paraphrase. He repeatedly ventriloquizes the voice of the poem, occupying Herbert’s subject position in order to expand and concretize our understanding of his relationship to Love. Responding to the word “taste” in Love’s command, Kunin writes:

I’m tasting, not eating. Not gratifying an appetite. Maybe not fully consuming and digesting. Just a taste. For reasons of curiosity, to see what it tastes like. Or a ritual kind of eating where I eat just enough to represent eating.

I am eating, and you are with me, but we are not eating together. I am eating your food, that is to say, I am eating you. Only you’re supposed to be the dominant one. You make the decisions and control the experience. Which makes sense if I’m eating without feeling hungry. My eating feeds your appetite, not mine.

We don’t know whether Herbert is hungry; Love never asks. The fact that Love commands him to eat without inquiring after this fundamental aspect of the guest-host relationship gets right to the heart of the feelings of discomfort and unease that pulse throughout the whole of the poem. As a result of this disjunction, the appetite — the desire — looks like it belongs more to Love than to him. Whom is Love’s love for? Probably Love.

But the flip side of this coin is that Herbert seems, well, into it. He declares himself unworthy, but at no point does he actually leave; only his “soul” draws back, with the implication that another, perhaps more physical part of him lingers. In effect, the entire scene replays the well-known joke from Groucho Marx: “I would never want to belong to a club that would have someone like me for a member.” Herbert’s relationship to God, or more precisely his relationship to erotic love, consists in being desired because of the dust on his soul, the shame implicit in his lowered gaze. Herbert wants to be summoned, to be ordered to join a club of which he believes himself unworthy, because to assert his own worthiness would be to put himself on the same level as his love object and thus invalidate the love object’s authority to declare him worthy. Herbert needs to keep his inferiority if he’s going to get a taste of superiority. He needs his love objects to be love subjects; he wants objecthood all for himself.

Kunin expands on this vision of the Herbertian persona — downtrodden, dust-ridden, Love-addled — in order to extend more general reflections on the intersections of love, eroticism, and power. He notes the strange points of overlap between divinity and parenthood, where producing and raising a child involves an almost unethical degree of influence over another person; observes that the psychic scene of the classroom may be even more fundamental than that of the family; comments on the enduring relevance of 17th-century courtesy manuals, in which guest and host “compet[e] to outdo each other in feats of modesty” and thus confer social debt upon the other person; discusses Magdalen Herbert, George’s mother, who according to John Donne was “a mother which delights to heare / Her early child mis-speake”; and mines his own sexual history for parallels to the erotic values he sees in Herbert’s poem. It is an astonishing book for any number of reasons, among them that its performative and discursive modes are entirely inseparable from one another. It feels at times less like a book than like an impossible box filled with extractable rhetorical events, each of which can be unfolded and briefly entered into, then collapsed again to make room for the next. By this I mean to say it seems realer than a purely linguistic object ought reasonably to be capable of.

¤

Realness, specifically aesthetic realness, constitutes the crux of Kunin’s other recent foray into prose. Character as Form is his first monograph, though he has taught English at Pomona College for many years. It breaks down into four sections — “Many is not more than one,” “Banish the world,” “What fiction means,” and “The wish to be an object” — and these in turn divide into petite subsections, usually three to six pages in length, with fun titles like “Proper names belong to everyone,” “The spider community,” “Nature’s shyness,” “Hats are emotional.” It also opens with a “Confession,” a fascinating discussion of the relationship between pretense and genuine performance in his work as a professor and critic, as well as with a brief parsing of the origins of his style, which I’ll gloss simply by relaying that his style found its mature form at the Mandrake Bar in Culver City.

Kunin argues that the essence of character is form. He sees this position as arising with Theophrastus, the Ancient Greek philosopher whose book Characters tabulates 30 distinct types of men and women, and reaching its peak in the 17th-century English and French genre of “characteristic writing,” which aims at articulating characters (character types) rather than describing particular people. It manifests itself in a variety of later periods and movements as well. But Kunin thinks the correctness of this understanding of character isn’t constrained by time, place, medium, or anything else: “My argument applies to everything called a character in all the contexts in which they appear.”

In identifying character with form, Kunin means to point out and justify character’s iterability. “Form makes it possible for there to be ‘more than one of something,’” he writes, borrowing a definition from the critic Frances Ferguson. We need to grasp character as formal if we are to explain how the same character can be portrayed by different actors across multiple performances in theater or film, or to explain how the character of Darcy can appear in Pride and Prejudice but also the 1995 BBC television serial and the 2001 movie Bridget Jones’s Diary, despite obvious differences in epoch, medium, narrative, and style. Above all else, Kunin wants to distinguish character from personhood, and to rescue character from the negative synonyms — caricature and stereotype — to which it has been reduced in recent times.

There are three serious problems with this approach. The first is that form — iterability, generalizability — is a basic feature of concepts as such. It isn’t particular to character. Form is what allows a stone to be recognizable as a stone both on film and in real life, both at home and abroad, both when you’re looking at basalt and when you’re looking at gneiss. The same applies to personhood. This cancels out many of Kunin’s examples, as when he uses his theory of character to explain how the film The Color of Pomegranates can show the poet Sayat Nova as both a boy and a man — played by two different actors — at the same time in a single frame. Such a move isn’t any more mysterious than displaying a single person in multiple photos. It’s not that we can track the continuity between them because the person is the same character; we can do so because they’re the same person. To show that character is formal doesn’t tell us anything about character in particular.

The second problem is that, by separating out character and personhood, he voids character of its explanatory power. For his account of generalizability to hold, Kunin has to say that a character gathers within itself every example of that character. (“I define character as a device that collects every example of a kind.”) Otherwise, so the argument goes, differences between multiple examples of a character would ruin the integrity of the type, rendering it incoherent as a unified concept. But this in turn leads Kunin to claim that, for instance, the miser Mr. Boffin in Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend contains within himself the entire history of material thrift: “Character makes it possible for the miser to be not just one miser but all misers. Character makes a seam between Dickens’s novel and other books, […] and between the novel and history.” If one takes the character of the miser to have only a single form across all periods, places, cultures, and contexts, then one ignores the many different historically specific reasons why misers end up being misers, ignores the specific content of their miserliness. Some misers will be neurotic, some greedy, some just lonely; others will have been traumatized by social or governmental theft. All of these instances have their own causes and content. Leveling the differences between them prevents one from grasping what makes misers misers. Replacing the particular (personhood) with the general (character) actually prevents one from understanding either conceptual pole.

The third problem is that Kunin never mentions or addresses the distinction between character in the sense of “aesthetic representation of a person” (“Charles Foster Kane is the main character in Citizen Kane”) and character in the sense of “type of person” (“my second cousin is a ne’er-do-well”). But if his theoretical work on the latter fails for the reasons I’ve described, the implicit splitting of these two senses allows his work on the former to retain its relevance. Indeed, there is an undeniable tendency toward generalization in the very idea of a representation, since a representation always has its phantom twin, the object or person being represented. (This is true regardless of whether the phantom twin existed prior to the representation or not.) One sees this fact most clearly in the visual arts, the vast majority of whose representations don’t specify the identity of the people they depict. Peter Hujar’s photograph Orgasmic Man obviously concerns aspects of an experience shared by many people, even if the relevant demographics might be constrained by gender, sexuality, age, or anything else. One can’t look at George Grosz’s street scenes without understanding their subject to be, for instance, abject impoverishment or blithe privilege in a way that involves categories of people, not just particular individuals. Even authors who emphasize singularity, like Dostoyevsky and Camus, conspicuously open up the possibility that their characters’ unusual traits might be representative of overlooked demographics.

The extraordinary value of Kunin’s book lies in his sensitivity to these aesthetic codes, to the way that artworks selectively augment and mute different aspects of their subjects. This is how content happens, and Kunin has an extremely good ear (and eye) for it. Take his account of the improvisatory, ludic logic of Harpo’s performance in the Marx Brothers film Monkey Business, where the four brothers impersonate the actor Maurice Chevalier in order to get through customs:

For much of the scene [Harpo] gives no indication that he is trying to impersonate Chevalier. He might not even be trying to get through customs. Other objects draw his attention: the piles of papers on the customs table he crumples and flings into the air; the rubber stamp and inkpad at first he applies haphazardly, not seeming to care whether he marks the papers or not, later targeting the bald head of the customs official; and the pens protruding from the inkstand he grabs and pumps as though they were the controls for an engine, or perhaps a drill. […]

Two impulses express themselves in Harpo’s play. One is intimacy with objective reality. In his presence all the tools of the trade on the customs table become active as toys rather than tools. He is not using them to get something or go somewhere; he is making them active and mobile. The second impulse, closely linked to the first, is mirroring. Harpo follows in a track that others have created. […]

It is a matter of indifference to Harpo whether he passes as Chevalier or not. He puts some care into acting as Chevalier but he cares just as much about portraying his brothers, the customs official, the papers, and the stamps. At first Harpo is wholly committed to mirroring his brothers. Following in the footsteps of Zeppo, Chico, and Groucho, he takes his place in line. He deviates from and expands on their patterns only because he is distracted by other intriguing patterns in the environment. He wants to be all the objects and persons on and around the table.

One has to rewatch the scene to grasp the extreme incisiveness of this reading. It draws out everything unusual, hilarious, and significant about Harpo’s peculiarly gleeful and absorptive relationship to his surroundings, the way his performances routinely rearrange the lines between activity and passivity, subjects and objects.

Kunin’s discussion of the Marx Brothers also anticipates the most interesting through-line in his book, visible primarily in the last two chapters. Investigating a nonlinear genealogy that includes William Godwin, Andrew Marvell, Wong Kar-wai, Christopher Marlowe, Edogawa Rampo, Denton Welch, and Austen, Kunin tracks instances in which ordinary objects get vested with human agency or, as a kind of logical foil to this phenomenon, ordinary objects present an enviable condition to human agents. In his poem “The Gallery,” Marvell imagines himself as a gallery or screen hosting images of his beloved; in Godwin’s novel Caleb Williams, the title character responds to his social marginalization by exploiting his “faculty of imitation” and “mechanical inventiveness,” assimilating himself to the objective, impersonal language of his environment. In Welch’s novels and journals, the material features of objects call forth visions of the agency he has lost through his mother’s death and his own crippling automobile accident, mediated always by the nostalgia of memory: “Orvill remembered with pleasure […] the kitchen cups large as babies’ chambers, and the thin delicate old spoons quite lost in their rude saucers.” Cups could cradle babies; spoons could fail to receive the respect they deserve from their saucers. And in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, the idiosyncratic notion of “comfort” offers a counterpart to the hatred that D. W. Harding has noted as an organizing principle of her work. Unlike sense, which tamps emotion down, and unlike sensibility, which brings emotion forth, “comfort” frees one from the responsibilities of self-regulation altogether. Household objects present the ultimate paradigm of comfort, in two different ways, per Kunin:

First, comfort may be the barely perceptible feeling of using or possessing an object that one takes for granted. The billiard room is where you expect to find it, in the part of the house where you built it at home. The fork is in its place setting or in its drawer, exactly where you put your hand. Second, comfort may be the impossible experience of being such an instrument or possession. In both cases comfort is different from the regulatory devices of self-command or self-indulgence. Comfort is what you command, the material mechanized by the command.

Comfort, whether as a protective measure or as an end pursued in itself, is a way of bypassing the thousand natural shocks that self-conscious existence is heir to, of experiencing a particular kind of freedom. The counterintuitive point is that the freedom afforded by comfort involves agential surrender. This could go a long way toward explaining the pleasure we feel in swimming, driving cars, listening or dancing to music: all these activities involve a degree of envelopment or immersion in which our ability to control our immediate experience is outsourced, relegated to something outside of us (water, car, melody).

Hatred and love would be the conventional pairing, but in Austen, comfort does the work of the latter, or replaces it with something similar yet distinct. Kunin’s reading of Austen pulls together the organizing concerns of his career: the weird complicity of subjects and objects; the substitution of parts for wholes; the essential, if agonistic, relationship between pleasure and pain. His corpus is one of the most invigorating and startling in contemporary letters, not least for the sheer quantity of connections and influences that sluice their way into his work. It embodies a wholly implausible intersection of avant-garde and traditional practices, of discipline-specific and generalist concerns, of approaching literature as a means of understanding life and approaching literature as a means of transforming life. In the passage with which this essay begins — “Love, what do I think / to say. I cannot say it” — it’s difficult to tell whether Creeley is using the word “Love” as an apostrophe to his wife, as an apostrophe to the idea of love in general, or as an exasperated interjection expressing, vis-à-vis love, some indeterminate but potent admixture of bewilderment and desire. Kunin helps us see that the ambiguity obtaining among these three options is part of the point.

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Griffin Shoglow-Rubenstein is a PhD student at Johns Hopkins. Previously he studied comparative literature at Yale.